'Toonsmiths

Boyhood passions and local music luminaries collide in Robin Wilson's new concept album-cum-animated series

The early winter air is crisp, but Robin Wilson is looking for a spot in the sun. Settling down on a bench, clutching a cigarette and coffee mug in one hand and a cell phone in the other, he's about to hold court in front of his Tempe Mayberry recording studio.

Unshaven and wearing a tattered sweater held together at the shoulder by a strategically placed safety pin, the former Gin Blossom and current Gas Giants main man has the disheveled look of "Blank Generation" spokesman Richard Hell. But Wilson is the furthest thing from a punk nihilist. Especially on this day, with all thoughts focused on his latest project, a concept album he hopes will one day immortalize him and his buddies as cartoon characters.

Set for release this week on his own Uranus Laboratories label, The Poppin' Wheelies is, in Wilson's words, the "soundtrack to a proposed animated series about a rock 'n' roll band in outer space." He's not kidding. With the help of his wife, Gena Rositano (a Saturday Night Live staffer who commutes between the Valley and New York City), he's penned a pilot script and fleshed out the characters -- many of whom will look very familiar to anyone who's spent time on the local music scene.

From the Sun Club to Saturday morning: The real Hopkins (left) and his animated counterpart.
From the Sun Club to Saturday morning: The real Hopkins (left) and his animated counterpart.
The Poppin' Wheelies: "It combines everything I love," says Robin Wilson of his new multimedia project.
The Poppin' Wheelies: "It combines everything I love," says Robin Wilson of his new multimedia project.

For Wilson, an avid collector of action figures, lunchboxes and other pop-culture fetish items, the project is a natural. "It combines rock 'n' roll, sci-fi/fantasy, comic books, animation -- everything I love," he says.

The singer was on tour with the Blossoms in 1995 when the inspiration for the Poppin' Wheelies first came, but his love affair with Saturday morning rock 'n' roll has been a lifelong romance. "When I was five years old, my favorite song was the theme to The Banana Splits," Wilson says, citing the psychedelic kiddy variety show. "I had a single of it that I cut out of the back of a box of Sugar Crisps cereal."

The merger of rock 'n' roll and children's programming began with the Beatles' 1965-1968 animated series on ABC and continued throughout the late '60s and early '70s with other shows based on real-life acts like the Jackson 5 and the Osmond Family. By the time Wilson was old enough to stare slack-jawed at the screen, network programmers -- pressured by critics and parent groups decrying Looney Tune-style violence in the wake of Vietnam and civil unrest -- were flooding the airwaves with programs that combined bubblegum music and genteel fantasy.

Wilson looks back fondly on the Poppin' Wheelies' Me-decade progenitors. "There was Captain Kool and the Kongs, Josie and the Pussycats, The Banana Splits, The Bugaloos, The Osmonds. Even in the Brady Kids cartoon, they were a band," he adds, laughing. "There was so much rock 'n' roll on Saturday morning TV. The closest thing to happen to that in the last 10 years was when Kid 'N Play had an animated series."

After sketching out the initial concept, Wilson engaged in brief talks with prospective dealmakers. He then went to work -- albeit over a two-year period -- recording an album to accompany a series that doesn't yet exist.

"Originally, I didn't conceive that I would put out a record before I had it created as an animated series," he admits. "But as I began the process of pitching the thing, I realized that having the record would be a very useful tool. It would give me an opportunity to help define the characters through artwork and clue people in on what the music was supposed to sound like. So being able to walk into Cartoon Network with an already completed album and a well-defined concept makes it a much more valuable property."

Wilson is looking to sign with an agent to help him further pitch the idea to TV and cable networks and comic book companies, as well as online and independent animation houses. However, the sometimes airy singer says he's well-grounded in the realities of selling a TV show. "I know there are thousands of animation properties in development," he says. "It's going to take years to get this produced. But the thing that I believe separates the Poppin' Wheelies is the fact that I have a really cool record already done."

Wilson can make a solid argument for that last point. The 11-song Poppin' Wheelies disc is an enjoyable, lighthearted pop confection. It's also a significant improvement over the Gas Giants' 1999 debut, From Beyond the Backburner-- an album encumbered by the weight of heavy expectations and a dearth of quality material.

One reason for The Poppin' Wheelies' appeal is that more than half of its tracks are cover songs, most of those coming from the catalogue of Tommy Keene, the patron saint of neglected and overlooked power-pop stars. Keene, a touring mate and Gin Blossoms collaborator, was touted early for stardom, releasing a pair of critically hailed EPs on the Dolphin imprint, then later two seminal albums for Geffen Records in the mid- and late '80s before disappearing from the public radar. He reemerged almost a decade later as a bona fide cult hero with the 1996 release of Ten Years After, and continues to be an active presence on the pop periphery.

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